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Abolish the Federal Cultural Agencies


According to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, “This is an ominous time for those of use who care for the arts in America. A misguided, misinformed effort to eliminate public support for the arts not only threatens irrevocable damage to our cultural institutions but also to our sense of ourselves and what we stand for as a people.”

That is typical of the apocalyptic vision of life without the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Our very culture hangs in the balance if the government doesn’t continue to appropriate at least several hundred million dollars a year to theater, music, artists, art galleries, humanities research, radio, and television. The philistines who disagree obviously don’t care for the arts.

Let’s look closely at Mrs. Clinton’s statement. Note the words “public support for the arts.” What art is not supported by the public? When people pay to see a movie, that’s public support for the arts. When they pay to attend a play or a concert, that’s public support for the arts. When they personally write checks to help finance a community arts society, that is public support for the arts.

So what is Mrs. Clinton talking about? She is talking about art that no one wants to pay for. She is talking about forced public support for the arts. Involuntary support for the arts. Taxpayer support for the arts. Now look again at her statement, edited to bring out what she really means: “A misguided, misinformed effort to eliminate forced public support for the arts not only threatens irrevocable damage to our cultural institutions but also to our sense of ourselves and what we stand for as a people.” This says much about what Mrs. Clinton thinks “we stand for as a people,” but little about what actually sustains our cultural institutions.

Who could oppose public support for the arts? But before we can fully judge an end, we must judge the means necessary to achieve it. Imagine that your neighbor tells you that he intends to donate a thousand dollars to the local symphony orchestra. You think: “That’s a fine way to show his love for music and his good will toward the community.” Then the next day, you read in the newspaper that your neighbor was caught robbing a bank and that he told the police he planned to donate the proceeds from the theft to the orchestra. Your evaluation of your neighbor presumably would change. Ends cannot be divorced from the means.

Why do Mrs. Clinton and other defenders of forced support for the arts not see that point? It may be that they regard taxation as something other than coercion, perhaps because we live in a “democratic” society. In other words, since we can vote, neither taxation nor the projects supported by taxation are tainted with the immorality of theft. What they fail to ask themselves is why the taxpayers must be threatened with punishment if they don’t support the arts. Let’s pause on that for a moment: A taxpayer can be imprisoned for not supporting the arts in the way Mrs. Clinton wishes. Imprisoned! Is that what you mean, Mrs. Clinton, when you talk about “our sense of ourselves and what we stand for as a people”?

It seems not to have occurred to Mrs. Clinton and the other advocates of forced support that coercing people to finance art (which may offend them) is unjust. In America most people understand the injustice of forcing someone to support religious ideas he disapproves of. Art deals with many of the same subjects as religion, most generally, man’s relationship to existence. Thus, we should have a separation of art and state for the same reasons we have a separation of church and state.

Why is it necessary to finance the arts by force? Several reasons are offered. Mrs. Clinton’s hyperbole about “irrevocable damage to our cultural institutions” is typical. Does anyone really believe government keeps the culture from collapsing? The agencies in question were established in the mid-1960s. Was America culturally impoverished in 1965? Before that date, Americans had developed jazz, blues, ragtime, the Broadway musical, Hollywood, modern dance, American expressionist painting, rock and roll, bluegrass, country and western, and more. Government money was not needed to bring about those artistic achievements, which changed the culture of the world. Many commentators have pointed out that since government funding began, nothing comparable to those achievements has come from the American arts. Instead, we’ve gotten nihilistic performance art in which people smear themselves with chocolate or carve pieces of flesh from the backs of fellow performers. In broadcasting, so-called public radio and television function essentially as mouthpieces and apologists for Leviathan.

The advocates of government finance also make a welfare defense of the agencies. Poor people and residents of small towns don’t have sufficient access to the arts, they say. Many responses are possible. For example, capitalism has done more to bring the arts to a mass audience than government could ever do. Thanks to capitalism, you can buy Beethoven’s nine symphonies on compact disk for under ten dollars. You can play the greatest movies ever produced in your living room. You don’t have to go back very far to reach a time when even well-off people would be lucky to hear fine music performed once in a lifetime. Moreover, the rich have always generously made art available to a wide audience. The great industrialists of the nineteenth century endowed museums, galleries, and concert halls. But despite all the talk about bringing the arts to the poor, the art that government finances is overwhelmingly consumed by upper-income, better-educated people. Government support for the arts forces the lower and middle classes to subsidize the rich.

We could also point out that there are amenities to small-town and rural life, such as a lower cost of living and more open space, not found in big cities. In return, there are tradeoffs: a sparser population makes some activities, including some arts activities, uneconomical. There is something unseemly about taking the benefits of that life while demanding that someone else eliminate the tradeoffs. Should city dwellers demand that people in low-cost areas subsidize their high cost of living?

But there is a more basic response to the welfare argument. One person’s need is not a proper claim on the money of other people. Someone living in a small remote town that cannot support a museum, a symphony orchestra, or a theater has no right to force others to provide it. There is no right to art at another’s expense.

That brings us to a basic ethical fallacy that lies at the heart of the welfare state. The foundation of the welfare state is the proposition that if you have more than the government thinks you need and someone else has less, then you can be compelled to surrender some of what you have. (Of course, what you surrender may never really get to the “needy” because the benevolent bureaucracy needs operating funds. But we’ll ignore that point at this time.) That philosophy, to put it in general terms, says that you do not own yourself; you do not have a right to exist for your own sake; you may not make the pursuit of your own happiness your life’s purpose. Thus, you will be compelled to serve the needs of others. You must justify your existence by submitting to the authority that decides who shall get what. (Out of benevolence, you well might wish to help victims of bad fortune. Here we’re talking about force and the individual’s basic moral justification.)

Finally, Mrs. Clinton’s fear for our cultural institutions betrays (if she really means what she says) an appalling ignorance of what a culture is. A culture is a spontaneous order. It is a result, as the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers put it, of human action but not human design. It is neither created nor sustained by government or any central authority. Like language, it is an organic phenomenon with a life of its own. The culture of a free people can no more die than can its capacity for language. To think it can is to reveal a rather low opinion of the human race. It’s as if Mrs. Clinton were saying that left on their own without the guidance of what Thomas Sowell calls “the anointed,” ordinary people would be incapable of generating or sustaining a culture or a sufficiently elevated culture. That’s what Mrs. Clinton apparently believes. That, I submit, is the very definition of elitism.


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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.